Right before Dr. John Townsend walked up to shred a guitar to some old Blink 182 songs with the band he has with his sons, I asked him if he was nervous. In a brief moment he talked to me about leaders and the three different types of stress we can face.
Before I share his insight, let me set the scene.
He invited us to a block party in his neighborhood, and he was hanging with his neighbors and being the generally great guy that he is. Not only is a renowned author, leadership coach, psychologist, and founder of the Townsend Institute of Leadership and Counseling at Concordia University, he is also and more importantly a great husband, father, and a deeply committed follower of Christ. Kaye and I have enjoyed getting to know John and his wife, Barbi. He was about to go play some music and I was curious if he gets nervous in these types of settings. He replied:
There are three types of stress. There is “no stress”, which means you don’t care and don’t bring your best. There is “debilitating stress”, which is not good for you or your family. And then there is “performing stress”, which helps you pull out the best you have in the moment. That is my level right now.
And then he went and picked up a real mic and started with a Journey song before moving into some Southern California punk. As I listened I thought about what he shared and the three different types of stress leaders face.
1. The Moments/Seasons of “No Stress”
While we can be tempted to long for a life of “no stress,” it is ultimately not what is best for our growth and development. I have talked to many leaders who lament the seasons in their lives when they grew too comfortable and were not challenged. Leaders lament those seasons because they know they did not offer their gifts to others as intently as they could and because those seasons did not help them grow.
2. The Moments/Seasons of “Debilitating Stress”
No stress is bad and so is stress that is debilitating. Debilitating stress levels are those that lead to paralyzed leadership – where you cannot make a decision. Or to absent leadership – where you don’t want to show up. In my years of leading, I have been there a few times… a few times too many. I pushed too hard for too long without rest, without stepping away from the work to be reminded that God is bigger than the work and that there is life outside it. Sometimes rest is not sufficient and time with therapist and medication are necessary. If you are in a season of debilitating stress, go talk to someone right away.
3. The Moments/Seasons of “Performing Stress”
Growing leaders are attracted to problems and opportunities that feel a bit overwhelming. They have learned that those challenges call for their best leadership and that their leadership will be further developed in the midst of the challenge. This is different from debilitating stress. This is putting yourself in positions of being intentionally overwhelmed not losing control and feeling owned by the situation. Just as additional weight and stress when working out helps develop our muscles, extra weight and stress in our leadership develops us and prepares us for the future. Discomfort helps development. Leaders who never want any stress are leaders who stop growing.
We want to do all we can to avoid “no stress” and “debilitating stress” and to courageously walk into opportunities of “performing stress.”